Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Long-popular insult may be on way out

Dane Schiller
San Antonio Express-News

MEXICO CITY — A centuries-old insult — drawn from a brutal chapter in history — could soon turn extinct, thanks to America swallowing up Mexican culture.

For generations, it has been popular here to insult anyone who prefers imported clothes, food, music or even spouses by calling them Malinchistas, from the name La Malinche, which was given to an indigenous teen girl who became the translator, concubine and property of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés.

She served as his negotiator and is said to have given birth to the first child of European-Indian blood after Cortés conquered this land in the 1520s.

If it were not for her ability to speak Spanish and Indian dialects, Spain might have had a far harder time dominating the region.

"She betrayed the Aztecs," college student Andrea Medina, 21, said as she stood beneath a National Palace mural containing an image of La Malinche and Cortés.

Calling someone by her name "is not a nice thing to say — to the contrary."

Despite the knee-jerk distaste for her memory, there are songs, books, poems, a street, a neighborhood and even a volcano named after La Malinche, who also was known as Malintzin.

She is the most widely known woman in Mexican history after the Virgin of Guadalupe.

But in time, using her name in vain could become passé. Thanks in part to the effects of free trade and the record numbers of immigrants living and working in the United States, it is becoming less and less foreign to display foreign ways.

Especially American ways. Eating pizza and wearing sneakers are becoming, simply put, Mexican. If a middle-class Mexican family doesn't spend at least part of a Saturday at a new Wal-Mart or Sam's Club, something is wrong.

Those businesses, along with other U.S. companies, particularly fast-food franchises, have sprouted across Mexico.

"Before, it was sandals and a zarape; now it is sneakers and a workout suit, " Mexico City sociologist Roberto Bermúdez Sánchez said.

Hurling Malinche or Malinchista as insults, he said, "is losing significance, as with time, there is more and more identifying with the United States."

The trend is obvious throughout society, from Mexico's most wealthy, who can travel abroad to shop for the latest styles, to the poor, whose sons often come home with new clothes and customs after working north of the border.

"It is different," Maribel Garduño, 22, who works for a video production company, said of foreign-made products. "Sometimes it is just about the style. Fabrics are better."

A preference for foreign things is a touchy disposition for Mexicans, who for hundreds of years have been invaded or dominated by foreign powers, including the United States, which gobbled up half its neighbor's territory with the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

La Malinche's child with Cortés is symbolically considered the birth of mestizos —people with combined European and Indian ancestry.

The mixed race claimed to this day by most Mexicans contains both sides of the conflict that created Mexico. Resentment, anger and confusion linger, said Geraldine Calvo, a Mexico City psychologist.

"It is an identity problem for Mexicans," she said. "In one way, they resent (foreigners). In another, they want to be like them."

Inés Hernández-Avila, a professor at the University of California at Davis, said La Malinche has taken an unfair pounding.

"There is still some pretty intense Indian hating in Mexico. I think that is part of it," she said.

When Cortés arrived, he was given a tribute of 20 women, including La Malinche.

Hernández-Avila and others agree that La Malinche made the best of the situation for herself and her family. She was baptized and gained status and benefits in colonial society.

Given her background and young age — perhaps the early teens when Cortés arrived — some find it amazing that she knew how to speak to leaders at the highest level of her society.

"Excuse me if they are going to blame her — what were men doing?" Hernández-Avila said of the long-popular view of La Malinche as someone who sold out her people to foreign invaders.

A children's book gives one idea of how La Malinche might defend herself and her actions.

"No one can say anything about me," the author writes, taking on the first-person voice of La Malinche. "I was sold as a slave and separated from my family when I was very young."

Still, hundreds of years later, she remains branded a traitor.

Mexico historian Salvador Reyes Equiguas said a lot will never be known.

"The story is very much fragmented, a piece here and a piece there," he said. "There is no complete truth to this story."

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